Although I began each of these paintings with a reference photo at my side, I don’t feel a slave to them. I crop them, insert and delete elements at will and change forms and colors to suit my needs. I am especially cognizant of the fact that photos tend to make bright areas brighter, and dark areas darker. They don’t allow for the fact that things in the distance become bluer and more blurry than the warm, detailed elements in the foreground. Photos also give all areas of a composition the same amount of detail and importance. Photographs can never capture what we actually see with our eyes when we view a scene. In reality, we focus on one small area and the surrounding areas tend to fade away and become totally unimportant.
I’m sure it will take a lifetime to incorporate all of the intricacies of optics into my paintings, but I continue to insert them as they begin to make sense to me.
I especially liked this composition for the emphasis on the young waitress with the distant bar patrons in the background. The simple, sunlit background is a calming, directional pointer to her tasks at the counter. In my teens and twenties I worked in restaurants and bars and totally relate to the connected, yet separate relationship I had with my clients.
For this new series I decided to use a somewhat limited palette of water-soluble oil pigments: Cadium Yellow Deep, Yellow Ochre, Cadium Red Medium, Alazarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Transparent Oxide Red and White. Everything I’ve read reinforces the idea that just because there are hundreds of tube colors available, does not meant that I have to use them. In fact, there are very strong reasons to use as few as possible.
First, a good version of almost every color is possible within a limited palette. Even though I have no orange, green, purple, black or grey in my paint tubes, I can mix endless varieties of those secondary colors using my few pigments. But even more important, when I use fewer hues, I usually end up with a much more unified painting, one that feels like it exists in a believable world. In his recent Ann Arbor workshop, Terry Miura taught me to include just a bit of each of my colors in every new shade I create. Thus, even though the sky is blue, it will have a bit of warm red, yellow and crimson in it too. When separate tube colors are used for every stroke in a painting, the result is a kaleidoscope of unrelated shades which don’t feel that they belong in the same work of art.
And if you need one more really good reason to use a limited palette, it is extremely expensive to buy and maintain tons of different shades of oil paint. They’re heavy to cart around, they dry out and they leak. It takes time to decide which ones you want to use and you often waste a lot of the puddles you squeeze out on your palette.
It seems to me that with pastels, more is better. With oils, less is more.
I was finally able to photograph some of the new work that I have been so excited about, and will be posting it over the next week or so. These oil paintings are a complete departure from my past work, for a few reasons. I have done very few interiors in the past and I almost never feature figures in my work. (Although I do train constantly by drawing and painting the human body.) But it was time to shake things up.
I am deep into this new medium of oil and I needed something to inspire me and make me look at subjects in a new way. I was trying to paint landscapes from photos and had become completely frustrated. After painting outside on site (or en plein air) for the last few summers, I sometimes find it difficult to capture the same freshness in the studio.
So I took a look at some of the photos of bars, restaurants, gallerias, etc., that I’d taken in the last couple of years. They had some of the elements that had always excited me: light, shadow, drama…with the added incentive of a little bit of narrative storyline supplied by the figures. I decided to try a series using this subject matter.
I’m not sure if this is a breakthrough or a phase, but I wake up every morning excited to get back in the studio. That tells me I should keep working on them…
Oops! Somehow I lost track of time and forgot to post for awhile. I have been working on a completely new set of oil paintings that have me excited in a way I haven’t been for a long time. Its really shaking things up for me and I LOVE IT. I will be posting them as soon as they dry enough to photograph.
I finished this painting of birch trees in Northern Michigan at the end of the year and am very happy with it as well. The more I work in oil, the more aware I become of the nuances that can be achieved…if I just stay patient. I am trying to create all my paintings “Alla Prima” or all at once, to keep a loose painterly effect. That means that a painting needs to be finished within 3-5 hours, before the paint gets too tacky and unmovable on the canvas (or linen panel in my case.) This way of working is familiar to me for many reasons. I am an inherently fast painter. I would go insane if I worked on paintings for many months. I think it has something to do with needing immediate gratification. Plus, since I am an avid plein air painter, I’m used to capturing a scene in just a few hours, before the sun moves too much and creates a completely different view. But most important of all, this technique helps me to curb my insidious habit of overworking a piece, especially in the studio where I have endless hours to daub, and “improve” the painting.
A year or so ago, my sis mentioned that she really wanted a portrait of the two little guys who light up her life. They’re half Yorkshire Terrier and half Maltese and the cutest (and craziest!) pups around. I started working on a dual portrait back in October between commissions and plein air painting, hoping to have it ready for Christmas. I shot photos in progress to explain the steps.
I knew the dominant color of the piece would be in the warm brownish orange range so I chose a piece of Colourfix paper in the exact opposite color, blue. I manipulated my reference photo in Photoshop til I was happy with the elements, composition and tight crop. I then printed out a black and white laser print at the exact size of the painting, 12 x 12 inches. I coated the back of the print with yellow Panpastel, taped it onto the Colourfix and traced over the print. Voila! When I lifted the print the image had been transferred onto the blue paper. In this step, you can see that I immediately drew in all of the darkest areas with a spruce blue Nupastel. Then I gave it a good spray of workable fixative to make the under drawing somewhat permanent and less apt to smear when I add subsequent layers.
Now, to get my bearings, I block in the light and dark areas of the composition, still using hard NuPastels. I very softly lay in some of the local colors I want to include in the painting. At this stage I am barely touching the pastel to the paper. I know I will be adding thicker and stronger colors as I go along and I don’t want to fill the tooth of the paper too early in the process.
I’m pretty happy with the color choices so now I switch to medium-hard Rembrandt pastels. I call this brand “my workhorse” because I use it for the majority of the middle steps of my paintings. Rembrandts have a full, rich color palette and are relatively dustless compared to the ultra soft brands that I will finish the painting with. They layer very well and don’t smear easily. This allows me to continually add new strokes of color over the preceding layer. I rarely smudge or rub in pastels because I want a vibrant, textured effect to my work.
When I first started working in pastel I would be very frustrated at this stage because I couldn’t immediately create the effect that was in my mind. Now, after years of painting, I know that it is a process and you have to go through the steps. The multiple layers with various contrasting colors build a vibrancy that you can’t get with a single stroke. I push the hues much farther than what I see in the reference photo – bright purple instead of gray, vibrant orange instead of tan – but I always stay true to the values. Values are the one thing you can’t mess with.
I finish the last layers with my softest, creamiest brands of pastels: Sennelier, Terry Ludwig and Schminke. The color glides off them like butter. I don’t use any spray after the first step, because it often darkens or alters the colors. I prefer leaving the pure pigment glittering on top of the paper.
I framed the portrait without a mat under anti-reflection glass with spacers, and gave it to Beth for Christmas. She was vewy, vewy happy.